The poet is alive

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KATRINA STUART SANTIAGO

KATRINA STUART SANTIAGO

Mula Tarima Hanggang (University of the Philippines Press, 2014) is Ericson Acosta’s new book of poetry and songs, one divided across the periods within which he wrote them. The heart of the book are the poems he wrote while in detention; framing this are poems on the bigger space that the poet navigates beyond jail, from Cubao to nation.
Given who Acosta is, you might imagine that you already know these poems: many writers have been jailed before him after all. You might also think of activist writing to fall within a particular aesthetic: the raised fist on the page can look the same, sound the same, be the same.
But where an argument can be made for the redundancy—the easiest one being how systems do not change, and therefore the demands of the people remain the same—the bigger argument that Mula Tarima Hanggang makes is for the poet’s voice as independent and distinct, no matter that it might form part of the bigger narrative of militant literature.
It is no different from every text’s insistence that it has something new to say. Acosta should not need to prove himself deserving of readership any more than the next poet.

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The silenced artist
Tatuan mo ‘ko, kosa, sige pa.
Tatuan mo ako ng kamao.
Tatuan mo ‘ko ng maso, ng karet, ng tabak.
Tatuan mo ako ng bangkaw, ng AK-47.
Tatuan mo ‘ko, tadtarin mo ‘ko ng pag-asa at ng tapang.*

Radikal-Chika-photoThere’s thankfully no need to hard sell these poems. There is a distinct voice here that is not merely bound to time spent in prison and a life in activism, as it is one that’s premised on an intellectual rationalization of why things are the way they are, and how individual experiences are not about person, as these are about the state of nation.
It is what one finds disconcerting especially for the poetry in detention, of which one expects (as with a lot of local poetry) a kind of self-centeredness, one that’s bound to self-flagellation, if not some self-pity. Instead what we have here are poems of action —even when it is about cleaning the toilet, or speaking to an inmate, smelling the smoke of meals being cooked, or hearing a dog barking far away. At the center of many poems are mundane activities turned philosophical, some seemingly tongue-in-cheek, others angry and pained, not one considering surrender.
Where a poet might create a universe so large and beyond imagination, Acosta re-creates the smallness of his world in prison. You can smell the stench of the provincial jail, as you can imagine the violence and injustice it hides. If jailing someone is about breaking him in some way, then it is Acosta’s ability to gaze at the world differently and bring these into poetry that allowed him his sanity. And to some extent, his freedom.

Hanggang sa akin ngayong pag-iis-is
sa abang inidorong ito
sa buyon ng kapalarang
dinuduraan,
sinisingahan,
iniihian,
tinataehan,
tinatamuran
ng tinaguriang mga patapon
at pusakal—
isang pag-ikid itong makabuluhan.**

Weapons and shields
Injustice ensures helplessness and loneliness, but what weighs heavier in these poems is the fortitude and courage that comes with refusing to fall into self-pity and -centeredness. In these poems that could unapologetically fall into the confessional, Acosta’s voice is one that goes beyond the self, and speaks not of an other, but of others. As such there is less of the oppressed versus the oppressor, the jailed versus the jail guards, as there is the writer and activist, the detainee, who stands as symbol against the State. It’s a State that asserts no political prisoners exist, and laughably so.

Zero: Bilang ng pagkurap
O pagkislot man lamang
Ng mapungay na mata
Ni Edwin Lacierda
Nang minsang ihayag niya
Ang kagaguhang opisyal
Na zero ang sumatotal
Ng bilanggong pulitikal.***

These poems are as much tales of imprisonment and silence, as these are of sanity, struggle, survival. Humor and intellect, song and poetry might make it bearable but there is nothing like real freedom, from hunger and need and want. There is nothing like justice and fairness, one hard to come by within and beyond prison. It is why the word remains as weapon, even when the poet is free.
The book introduces the prison poems with a section on seven daggers, which establishes the setting larger than nation, where there is violence but also freedom, threatening in its grit but comforting in its clarity. We hold weapons, we are reminded, and we use these in many ways. Acosta’s Mula Sa Tarima Hanggang reminds us that there is also and ultimately a struggle, one that is in writing and creativity.

Sinisikap nating maya’t maya ay sipatin
kung gaano pa katuwid, pantay at pasulong
ang talim at gulugod ng ating mga sundang.
Ang sa aki’y tinutok ko sa langit ‘sang araw
at tulad ng manunudla ng kalaw o pipit,
akin ngang ipinikit ang kaliwa kong mata.****

Acosta’s weapon was always his creativity, his shield his convictions. Jail was the only way to silence him. Or so they thought.
*From “Tatoismo.”
** From “Halaw Ng Buyonero.”
*** From “Statistics.”
**** From “Ikatlong Sundang: Sipat.”

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